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In re Briann A.T.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

October 18, 2016

In re Briann A.T. et al.

         Providence County Family Court No. 98-1873-3, 98-1873-5 Associate Justice Laureen D'Ambra

          For Petitioner: Karen A. Clark Department of Children Youth and Families Lynne Marran Radiches Court Appointed Special Advocate

          For Respondent: Jesse W. Duarte, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on October 4, 2016, on appeal by the respondent, Marvin T.[1] (respondent), from a Family Court decree terminating his parental rights to his daughters, Briann A.T. (Briann) and Bri'Nayshia A.T. (Bri'Nayshia), who were born on October 3, 2007, and November 17, 2010, respectively. The parties were directed to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided.[2] After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda filed by the parties, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown, and we proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the decree of the Family Court.

         Facts and Travel

         The plight of Briann and Bri'Nayshia first came to the attention of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) on August 23, 2012, when DCYF was called to the home of Briann and Bri'Nayshia's mother in response to an incident that led to the mother's arrest. DCYF removed Briann and Bri'Nayshia from the home, placed them on a forty-eight-hour hold, and filed ex parte neglect petitions in the Family Court seeking to remove the children from the care of the mother and respondent-father. During this time, the whereabouts of respondent were unknown.

         A decree was entered by the Family Court on January 17, 2013, finding Briann and Bri'Nayshia to be neglected and committing them to the care, custody, and control of DCYF. On October 27, 2014, DCYF filed petitions in the Family Court seeking to terminate the parental rights of respondent with respect to both Briann and Bri'Nayshia.[3] With respect to respondent, DCYF alleged the following grounds for termination: that the children had been placed in DCYF's custody or care for at least twelve months; that respondent was "offered or received services to correct the situation which led to the [children] being placed"; and that there was not "a substantial probability that the [children would] be able to return safely to [respondent's] care within a reasonable period of time considering the [children's] age[s] and [their] need for a permanent home." G.L. 1956 § 15-7-7(a)(3).[4] The respondent contested the petitions and proceeded to trial.

         Trial proceedings were held in Family Court on March 16-18 and April 1, 2015. The Family Court justice heard testimony from several witnesses, including Jen Shymanik (Shymanik), a social worker from DCYF, who was assigned to respondent's case on February 1, 2013. At that time, Shymanik contacted respondent and thus began what can only be characterized as difficult and unsuccessful case planning for a recalcitrant father with mental-health issues.

         The record discloses that eight case plans had been developed, four for each child. Those case plans included the attainable goals of: obtaining employment, obtaining appropriate housing, gaining financial stability, attending to the girls' mental-health and developmental needs, and working on parenting through visitation, empathy, and bonding. Shymanik also referred respondent to a psychologist for a parent-child evaluation; however, respondent refused to attend. It was only after Shymanik stressed the importance of the evaluation that in July 2013, respondent agreed to cooperate. The evaluation centered on respondent's lack of parenting skills and his own mental-health issues. Although the evaluation included a referral for respondent to attend the Families Together program at the Providence Children's Museum, respondent was ineligible based on his failure to consistently attend his biweekly visits with Briann and Bri'Nayshia. Visitation was problematic throughout case planning efforts. The respondent canceled many scheduled visits with his daughters, asserting that he was ill, he had to work, or that the weather was inclement.

         Shymanik estimated that, during her involvement with respondent, he was offered visitation twice a month but that he attended only one visit per month. Shymanik testified that during these visits the girls were "[r]eally affectionate with one another" but there "seemed to be very little bond between [respondent] and the girls. * * * [T]hey weren't very responsive to him." Shymanik credited respondent for asking questions about Briann and Bri'Nayshia's day and stressing the importance of education, but she noted that, in some ways, respondent "showed very limited capacity to parent." For instance, after Shymanik informed respondent that a nephrologist had diagnosed Briann with hypertension and recommended that she not consume high-fat, sugary, or fried foods, respondent brought fried chicken and french fries for her to eat. Although Shymanik provided respondent with feedback and suggestions for improvement, respondent "consistently ignored" her and on several occasions "became sort of argumentative."

         Shymanik testified that, on one occasion, respondent became confrontational when he arrived for a visit and was informed that Briann would be approximately half an hour late because she was attending a friend's birthday party. Shymanik recalled, "[respondent] * * * had a verbal argument with the clinician and just walked out of the visit." Thereafter, respondent "refused" to participate in the Families Together program, but visitations continued. Shymanik observed an increase in Bri'Nayshia's behavioral issues; and, when she brought the problem to respondent's attention, he "blame[d] [Shymanik] and the foster parents for the way the children behaved." When Shymanik explained to respondent that he should be more protective of the children because of their developmental and mental-health needs, he replied that the children "didn't have any service needs at all" and that their behavior arose from lenient parenting by the foster parents. Shymanik informed respondent that his daughters had been diagnosed with communication, behavioral, and medical needs and that Briann and Bri'Nayshia had been referred to early-intervention services and enhanced outpatient services. These services were delayed, however, because respondent flatly refused to sign the necessary release forms; requiring DCYF to seek the Family Court's permission for Briann and Bri'Nayshia to receive these overdue services.

         In December 2013, Shymanik referred respondent to the Newport County Mental Health Services for a psychiatric evaluation. During the evaluation, respondent took no responsibility for any missed visits and informed the evaluator that he was "doing everything he could" but that DCYF "didn't want * * * him to have his kids."

         With regard to future planning for Briann and Bri'Nayshia, respondent was informed that he needed to ensure that the children would not be exposed to unsafe living conditions. Although respondent admitted his residence "wasn't an appropriate place" for Briann and Bri'Nayshia, he made no effort to obtain suitable housing. Shymanik testified that, while respondent met certain goals in the case plans such as obtaining employment, his mental-health issues, especially his "combative approach" to disciplining, were continuous concerns. In addition to being concerned about his mental-health, Shymanik testified to her repeated concerns that ...


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